Cybersociology Magazine: Issue Five

Field Report: Introducing Radio Free Monterey by Barbara Steinberg


Radio Free Monterey (RFM) is very much a personal story about a man creating his own stage in a society that ignores nonconformists unless they can make others understand their vision.

When people study philosophy their whole lives, they can speak obscurely or they can become eloquent. What determines how they will be perceived?

James Mason found the answer in broadcasting. Writing alone was good, but radio provided a more inspiring channel for creativity. And it wasn't just the wire or the microphone, it was the audience on the other end who was ready to listen and understand in real time.

I met my friend James by chance over the internet in August 1995. A passionate anti-gun activist, he had spent years debating hard-core NRA members in chat rooms, newsgroups, and email from his frequently visited gun-control site. His letters to the editor advocating rights for the poor were also printed in and solicited by local newspapers. I was struck by his ability to be honest in a world that, to me, seemed to require a different social face for everything.

He wrote that the Reagan/Bush economy drove him from Massachusetts to California. "If I was going to be piss poor and without a home, I might as well do it where the weather was nice." I had never met anyone who said things like that.

In my first semester at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program, I did a final project for my Tech class on microbroadcasting. We made a radio. And I called James and said, "Check out Radio Free Berkeley. Stephen Dunifer talks about an 'ever-growing micropower broadcasting movement to liberate the airwaves and break the corporate broadcast media's stranglehold on the free flow of news, information, ideas, cultural and artistic creativity.' A low-power radio station might be an advocacy tool you'd be interested in building."

I was right. And James created Radio Free Monterey.

From the RFM web site:

"My name is James Mason and my current love is for the communication of ideals and solutions toward positive change for our growing and complex society. When I was a boy, I stuttered so badly I could not talk. Now I can't shut up. To speak to the public on issues that effect us all is to me an extremely habit-forming activity from which I can not curtail. At this stage in my life, free speech is crucial for me to thrive.

"On March 5, 1997, Radio Free Monterey went on the air from my bedroom in Old Monterey (near downtown). Upon learning of the Free Radio Berkeley situation, and with that station's help, I spent approximately three months and $1,400 of my own money to build a mini-radio station at home. With a meager 24 watts of power that barely broadcasted five miles, I sent transmission to the community on an average of 12 hours a day, six days a week."

The bond had been made between someone passionate about politics, and broadcasting to an audience. I believe that the image of an audience on the other side of your voice, listening and understanding, is an inspiration force that allows you to start seeing the possibilities of building something that can truly effect positive change. His vision to run a radio station that would give voice to the disenfranchised was forming, and so was his intention to turn RFM into something he could do for the rest of his life.

This is the same level of commitment it takes to build an online community, which is the next chapter in this story, because the drama wasn't over.

On June 17, 1997, Judge Claudia Wilken allowed the FCC to shu t down Radio Free Berkeley. At that time, the FCC considered such microbroadcasting operations an invitation to chaos on the airwaves. It looked like it was over.

James wrote, "If you can make shoes, it's of little consequence if you can never have a shoe store. If you like to write, it's of little significance if no one can read it. If you like to broadcast, tough, because there is a large and complex bureaucracy composed of well-paid radio executives and their lawyers and politicians whose own ethics are easily compromised by money, and complacent and placid listeners, too busy to see their freedom to speak and be heard being swept out from under them rapidly."

I called James and said, "Forget the FCC, let's change networks. Let's make Radio Free Monterey a web-cast radio station and try to build a virtual community from the interaction between the DJs in RealAudio/Video and the audience in a chat room. It would not only be a conversation between people, but a conversation between interactive technologies. And it is all legal."

So I built the first incarnation of the web site, and James, with his sidekick Roger, started e-broadcasting 7 hours a day, 6 days a week.

Sometimes the real world might not meet your expectations or judge you by parameters that ignore your greatness, for don't we all have that spark within? How many times have you seen people let life beat them down?

Virtual Community builders are the ones who never give up. Instead, we rebel by remaking society in our own image, thereby setting the stage for our own individual brand of theatre.

Radio Free Monterey is radio theatre improvised every night from a homemade studio (now quite sophisticated) accompanied by chat room dialogue. It is an alternative real world, where the interaction between the DJs, their guests, and the chatting audience, can create the stage and make people feel a part of a comfortable play.

In his fight for the dignity of nonconformists, James knew he was not alone. He knew that by letting the station give others the same stage RFM gave him, he would be giving them a stake in the community and would develop a loyal and devoted following. We had 153 page hits in July 1998 and over 10,000 in January 1999. We get around 200 unique listeners per night.

Recently, the FCC in a 4-1 vote offered proposals to create thousands of new, licensed low-tech FM radio stations from 1 watt to 1000 watts, reversing the 20-year-old ban against such licenses. We are hoping these licenses will open up the airwaves to alternative voices like RFM's.

In a barrage of commercial web radio stations, RFM remains a comfortable place off the beaten path where people have become devoted to the station because they have seen someone putting the ir life into it day after day. That is the promise a moderator makes to members. When it is kept, people come and stay.

Communities are built when "souls touch across wires."

RFM has grown this group spirit, which is created when people bond in an online community and put their talents together. You never know where their creative journey will take you. That is the adventure, which cannot be manufactured because emotions cannot be manufactured.


So join us and feel it at All are welcome.


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Barbara Stei nberg ([email protected]) is the founder of The Web Sociology List, Western Hang Gliders Online, and co-founder of Radio Free Monterey. She also hosts the Writers and Society conference at the trAce Online Writers Community, and is a student in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU.

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